Review: David Oyelowo’s ‘Nightingale’

“I want to be near you, got to be with somebody, I can’t be alone! Because – as you must have noticed – I’m – not very well…” Blanche DuBois, A Streetcar Named Desire

I went into Nightingale, the newest film made for television from the HBO factory, knowing absolutely nothing about it. I knew that it was on HBO and that it starred the brilliant David Oyelowo (Selma). That was it. And that was the best possible circumstance. Writing a review of the piece will be tricky as I don’t want to give away any cruicial details. So, if you want to remain as pristene on the film as I did, then read no further. Just know that Nightingale is a brilliantly fascinating and absorbing journey into a solitary mind as it falls apart. It’s not an easy sit, but you’re not likely to see a better performance this year by an actor in any television medium.

Oyelowo stars as Peter Snowden, a man living in near-complete isolation at home with his mother. Peter was once enlisted in the Army, although it’s not exactly clear how long and how in depth his involvement was. En route to basic training, he quickly bonded with another recruit named Edward but has sense lost touch with him. Nightingale, at its most basic plot, is about Peter’s many attempts to reconnect with Edward and regain that component of his lost youth. Not much else is known about Peter – the piece is a one-man show for Oyelowo and, as such, it only gives us the story from his perspective. There are knocks at the door and several phone calls made, but everyone is kept off-screen, hightening Peter’s rapidly deterioriating mental state. The entire proceedings rest on Oyelowo’s shoulders, and he carries it beautifully, digging into Peter headfirst in a wild performance unhindered by vanity. He delivers it all brilliantly, only fully diving into rage a few moments and making the audience believe that Peter is a deeply troubled man whose mental issues could indeed go undetected by the casual observer. It’s a fantastic performance that ranks with his formidable work in Ava DuVernay’s Selma. He will be nominated.

Director Elliott Lester and first-time screenwriter Frederick Mensch have, in my opinion, created an admirable modern update/homage to the work of celebrated playwright Tennesse Williams. Isolation. Financial woes. Mental struggles. It’s all here coupled with modern medication and presumably some influence of PTSD. Oyelowo’s Peter has roots in The Glass Menagerie‘s Amanda Wingfield and, of course, A Streetcar Named Desire‘s Blanche DuBois. Infinitely more dangerous than either of those women, Peter is nonetheless struggling to regain a sense of his self, his own persona, by desperately reaching out to that elusive other – an other that never really seems to materialize in the way Peter needs him to. Much like Williams’s plays, the setting is constrained to the dilapidated house – furnished with religious iconography and personal relics from their past – that Peter shares with his mother, and the claustrophobia we feel greatly suppliments the dread of the piece. Given that, there are even echoes of Roman Polanski’s claustrophic chamber pieces such as The Tenant or Repulsion where the setting influences the main character’s mental state.

Nightingale certainly isn’t a film with mass appeal, yet the experience is an extremely rewarding one should you give it the time. It is an engaging and fascinating work that you still may never want to revisit. But there is much more at work here than simply a man losing his mind. This is a film of profound sadness and desperation. Peter, like Blanche DuBois before him, is a man looking for kindness from a stranger. These people suffering in the shadows that we all ignore, these are the ones in need of help far more than we are willing to admit. Oyelowo and his team bring that truth to light in a shattering way.

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